Lower fees, more student grants. In Ireland.

This morning the Russell Group is out arguing that the average deficit per UK undergraduate will more than double from £1,750 in 2021-22 to around £4,000 in 2024-25, with deficits across all subjects.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Its response to the government’s higher education reform consultation argues that a decline in per-student funding will impact on class sizes, staff-student ratios, and module choices – which in the long term will jeopardise the UK’s response to workforce skills gaps, and economic growth.

As well as warning against proposals to abolish foundation years and to introduce student number controls and minimum entry requirements, it calls on government to develop a new funding formula to maintain quality ensuring a fair deal for the public purse.

I’m old enough to remember when the Augar review was supposed to do that. Oh well.

Part of the problem of course is that while the sector thought it had gained long-term independence over its finances back when the post-2012 fees settlement was developed, it didn’t bank on the government freezing the fee.

That now leaves the sector in a proper bind. It’s hard to argue in public for higher fees, and any issues with quality become the sector’s fault rather than government’s. Be careful what you wish for, and all that.

There have been similar issues in the Republic of Ireland. The consensus there is that the issue of HE funding has been unsolved for over a decade, and despite the 2016 Cassells report on funding giving the government a set of options for reforming the sector, its ideas have been largely languishing since.

So it was interesting that yesterday higher education minister Simon Harris got closer to a solution by announcing a new long-term funding plan – in what were described as “landmark reforms” for the sector’s finances that also address the costs of participation in HE.

It’s like a complete opposite to the politics of England’s system – plenty of principles but no figures yet, as these will be decided from budget to budget. That aspect will still give some in England’s sector the hives – but it’s all in the context of taking responsibility for the problems in, and success of, the sector.

The plan is that the current €3,000 student contribution fee for students will be reduced over a number of budgets, and Ireland will also increase the number of families entitled to student grants. Annual cuts to the fee in the order of €500 will be considered in the context of each forthcoming budget.

During the summer in advance of each year’s Budget, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will publish an annual paper outlining potential options and impacts related to the cost of education. Remember in England DfE hasn’t looked at the income and expenditure of students since 2014, and its response to Augar pretended that its recommendations on maintenance didn’t exist.

For universities, the plan also prioritises the investment of an additional €307 million – in addition to the current €2 billion annual spend – over a number of budgets to bring core funding into line with international peers. The focus will be on lowering staff-student ratios, improving the quality of programmes and providing a third-level education system which is accessible to “everyone in society”.

The package also includes formally ruling out student loans, because according to Harris:

They burden younger people with more debt when they come out of college… They don’t work.

Oh – and in more alarming contrast news, he also announced the establishment of a National Student and Researcher (NSR) Helpdesk to assist Ukrainian students and researchers who are seeking to continue their higher-­education studies in Ireland.

The third-level sector has once again shown important leadership since the unlawful war in the Ukraine. A new central helpdesk will be established providing important information to Ukrainian people seeking to access third level here in Ireland.

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